Cities and towns across the United States have long used citations and traffic tickets to generate revenue, but the far-reaching impact of these fees has begun to appear on the public’s radar as a form of de facto taxation—or what some specialists have begun to call “addiction” —particularly when they contribute more than 10 percent to local budgets.
The three cities (Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkson) all generate enormous revenue from associated traffic and ordinance violation fines and fees—between 14 percent and 15 percent of their revenue over the course of five years.
In 2017 alone, both Morrow and Riverdale collected almost $2 million in fines and fees, with Clarkson halfway there at almost $1 million, said the study, entitled “Taxation by Citation.”
Most of the revenue came as a result of offenses in which the perpetrators “presented little threat to the public.” Examples include traffic and non-traffic violations alike like a “State of Disrepair” violation, which could be assessed for asphalt cracks in a driveway or weeds growing in a backyard.
That was in sharp contrast to similarly sized Georgia cities who took in just 3 percent of their overall revenue from fines and fees.
The revenue bonanza creates a conflict of interest that is increasingly concerning some officials and residents of the communities, researchers found.
In Jonesboro, another city which has become dependent on fees, City Councilman Robby L. Wiggins told the researchers that he believes prioritizing profit over protecting residents was bad judgment.
“I don’t know if it’s to ‘protect and serve’ or to ‘collect and serve,’” Wiggins said. “A lot of times, that’s what it seems like to me.”
The three Georgia cities in the city all have own independently funded courts which process citations, which helps to fuel the money pump, researchers found. The courts process more violation cases than courts in other similarly sized cities. Some 97 percent of all defendants plead guilty or are found guilty.
It’s not difficult to see why cities would seemingly encourage traffic violation to further fill their municipal coffers.
“When ticket revenue they generate from lower-speed infractions accounts for more than 35 percent of the department’s budget,” passing out violations is a no-brainer, the researchers wrote.
But the impact can also be corrosive on municipal governments.
The study found that city residents with recent citations “reported lower levels of trust in city government than those without, suggesting taxation by citation is likely short sighted.”
In one of the questions on a survey conducted by the researchers, residents were asked to respond on a scale of 0-100 saying the percentage of the time they expect the “police to do what is best.”
On average, for individuals who needed to pay a citation, they reportedly gave a number just less than 50, whereas individuals without a citation record said chose 70.
Because of this, the study suggests, what the city gains in monetary value is lost in community trust and cooperation.
“Taken together, these findings suggest taxation by citation may be a matter of systemic incentives,” the authors of the study conclude. They call upon judges to stop convicting people purely for their city’s financial gain, and for police departments to think beyond the payout of a fine or fee.
The full study, The Price of Taxation by Citation: Case Studies of Three Georgia Cities That Rely Heavily on Fines and Fees, can be accessed here.
For additional reading on fines & fees and “Cash Register Justice,” see The Crime Report’s resource and conference page here.
Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report.